By Bong Galarpe (Politika 2013 contributor)
OF all the political figures in Southern Philippines, the most controversial right now is the erstwhile obscure Cebu City Councilor Rodrigo “Bebot” Abellanosa because of a conflict between being both a councilor and president of a private college.
The three-term councilor is now running for Cebu City’s south district congressional seat to be vacated by his party mate and Cebu kingmaker Rep. Tomas Osmeña who wants to return as city mayor. Osmeña is going against his former party mate and vice mayor for several terms incumbent Mayor Mike Rama.
Running against Abellanosa is new politics advocate Aristotle Batuhan, a former DOTC undersecretary and volunteer lawyer for the prosecution in the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. Batuhan organized the Noynoy Aquino for President Movement (NAPM) in the region last 2010.
A private citizen identified as Philip Banquiran of Barangay Inayawan, has filed a complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman for graft and corrupt practices for alleged ‘conflict of interest.’ A columnist said that more than the legal arguments, there is the question of ‘delicadeza.’
The controversy stemmed from the Asian College of Technology’s involvement with the Cebu City Government College Scholarship Program. Abellanosa is the president and substantial owner of Asian College of Technology (ACT), where most scholars or student beneficiaries are enrolled.
The College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) and the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) obtained records showing that ACT absorbed a total of 15,658 Cebu City scholars and thus was paid by the Cebu City government a total of P156.58 million since the first semester of school year 2010-2011 up to the present.
In contrast, the far second University of Cebu had a total of only 8,553 scholars since 2010. At P10,000 tuition assistance for each scholar, the total outlay from the Cebu City scholarship program paid directly to UC only reached P85,530,000.
The total payment from 2010 to the present received by ACT, was P71 million more than that of UC.
The figures are based on reports submitted by Amed Amor A. Seno, secretariat member of the scholarship committee, and Ester E. Cubero, scholarship committee member, to the office of Mayor Michael Rama.
Abellanosa, who is running for congressman in the 2013 midterm elections, said ACT’s involvement with the scholarship program went through the legal process, otherwise the City Government would not have entered into an agreement with the school.
However, the complaint questions the legality of Abellanosa’s role in the proceedings, where he acted as representative of both the school and as a member of the Sangguniang Panglungsod.
Moreover, ACT was given a tax reprieve by the City Government by virtue of the Memorandum of Agreement which was authorized by the City Council at the time when Abellanosa was sitting as the presiding officer pro tempore.
These actions, which clearly favored Abellanosa’s business enterprise or school, are clear violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, the complaint said.
A day before the complaint was filed, a tabloid columnist has indirectly questioned the ethical principles or moral values of Abellanosa regarding the said transactions.
In his Bisaya column titled “Delicadeza ni Bebot,” Banat columnist John Rey Saavedra said: “Maayo usab unta lili-on ni Konsehal Bebot ang ‘delicadeza’.” In near translation, he said Councilor Bebot should also have a peep or a glimpse at delicadeza, hinting further that Abellanosa should have at least taken the decency to exclude himself from the deliberations being the owner of ACT.
Delicadeza means “an act of being refined or delicate in tastes or manners,” the columnist defined, but added that the word is not new to Abellanosa who claims in paid ads to be educated in Harvard University. (The truth about this Harvard claim emerged after months of controversy in the Facebook group ‘Maghisgot Kitag Politika, Bay.’ An Abellanosa defender explained that the councilor finished a Harvard Professional Management Program in 2010. A quick check showed that the program was only for two days.)
Cornered, Abellanosa came out swinging against his political opponent. He falsely claimed that the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) and the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) are campaign staff of his opponent Batuhan, popularly known in Cebu’s NGO and cause-oriented community as Totol.
Shortly after the filing at the office of the Visayas Ombudsman, Abellanosa surprised City Hall beat reporters. The erstwhile member of the City Council’s committee on silence called press conference and challenged Batuhan to file the case himself.
Denying any hand in the case, Batuhan nevertheless said he agreed that such a case should be filed.
“It is highly unethical, improper, immoral and even criminal for a sitting public official to be a part of a committee or body that sits in judgment of a program that will benefit his private business. Clearly a punishable conflict of interest situation,” Batuhan said.
As the issue has already been brought to the attention of the Ombudsman, this case will hound Abellanosa until the elections. He would have his hands full defending himself as he would certainly be confronted by this controversy during his campaign.
Abellanosa may be able to get away with the legal battle, but his integrity and moral decency would now definitely remain equivocally dubious. In the barangays, delicadeza in Cebuano translates to maayong pamatasan.
Ordinary voters, even those belonging to the Osmeña machinery, would then have to deal with the question: should they help bring a councilor nga way maayong pamatasan to Congress?
According to the editorial of Sun.Star Cebu published online December 14, 2012 :
“Abellanosa has insisted that his participation in the running of the scholarship program is minimal and that ACT itself spends an additional of P5,000 per scholar. But there is something to be said about the advantage of having inside knowledge of how the scholarship program is run and the benefits of absorbing a big chunk of the scholars. The anti-graft office and the voters will have to rule whether Abellanosa is having his cake and eating it too.”
‘Suit against Abellanosa‘ (Sun.Star editorial)
‘Abellanosa faces graft probe on scholarships (Cebu Daily News blog)
Mga iskolar mireklamo (Wen Celen, Banat News)
‘Abellanosa gikiha’ (Superbalita Cebu)
‘Delicadeza ni Bebot‘ (John Rey Saavedra, Banat News)
CEGP, NUSP question city scholarship (The Freeman)
Pag-review sa programa giduso (Philip Cerojano, Superbalita Cebu)